If the spiders dangling in your neighbours' Halloween displays stand between you and Sunday's candypalooza, it's time to get a grip. Stéphane Bouchard, a psychologist and professor at Université du Québec en Outaouais in Gatineau, offers advice for looking fear in the eye (all eight of them).
Fear or phobia?
When does healthy caution tip into arachnophobia, or irrational fear of spiders? "It's normal to be afraid of some things," Dr. Bouchard says, but you've crossed the line when your fears prevent you from doing things you want to do. "It can get to the point where people can't go camping or trick-or-treating with their children. I know of someone who sold her house because a spider hid under her oven and she never found it again."
Don't fear fear
Don't berate yourself for being alarmed when a spider darts across the ceiling. "It triggers a reaction in the part of the brain that controls emotion, then the more logical part kicks in," Dr. Bouchard says. "This is why the cure is to progressively face your fear. You're allowing the brain to collect disproving information that something is threatening."
Many people won't confront their phobias because they don't want to look foolish by fainting, crying or chickening out. But "if you avoid your fear, you don't get the chance to see it's not as dangerous as you thought, or to see that you can cope in the situation," Dr. Bouchard says.
Take small steps
"One of the easiest ways to start exposure would be looking at pictures in books," Dr. Bouchard suggests. "Then you can move on to small furry or plastic toys." The toys' appearance and texture is important for dealing with revulsion. "People are usually phobic either because they perceive something as threatening or disgusting. With spiders you have to deal with both."
Once you can handle toys, you're ready to look at moving spiders on video. Then try approaching a small spider either outdoors or contained in a jar. Some of Dr. Bouchard's patients work their way up to a face-to-face with a tarantula.
Seek professional help
If your phobia is extreme, head to a therapist. Virtual reality exposure therapy, which should be available across the country as early as next summer, has been shown to work as well as traditional exposure therapy, with certain advantages. Patients don visors and earphones to experience anxiety-triggering situations in 3-D while stress indicators such as breathing and heart rate are monitored. Dr. Bouchard's research clinic has an "immersive room" created out of screens, each with its own projector that adjusts images as the patient moves around, peering through goggles. "The psychologist can control the size of the spider, its movement and location. It can act more predictably or less," he says.
But you won't be truly cured until you can tolerate a close encounter with an actual arachnid.
*And don't do this: Let your child's small fears balloon into big phobias.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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